Your stuff isn’t you

Over the weekend, writer Andrew Sullivan linked to the findings of a 2003 study on “The role of eyebrows in face recognition.” The study concludes that when a person removes his or her eyebrows (either by shaving them off or digitally removing them in a photograph) it is very difficult to recognize that person.

More than half of the people looking at images of celebrities will fail to name the celebrity when their eyebrows are missing. And, since most of us aren’t as famous as Richard Nixon, it’s safe to bet that if we were to remove our eyebrows that most people wouldn’t recognize us, either.

I’m mentioning this study because it is fascinating to me on two levels. First, I thought it was cool. Who comes up with the idea for testing this sort of thing?

Second, I instantly thought about the human desire to express ourselves through stuff. We buy doo dads and knick knacks and a seemingly unlimited supply of things to proclaim, “this is who I am!” We think our stuff tells the world who we are, but our eyebrows — little bits of hair that nature automatically provides — say more than our possessions ever will.

Remove a favorite chair from your home or toss out your beloved t-shirt and everyone in your life will still recognize you. Shave off your eyebrows, and even your closest circle of friends will have to stare at you for awhile to realize that they know you. I’m not suggesting that you shave off your eyebrows, rather that you remember this strange study as further proof that your stuff isn’t you.

(Images of Richard Nixon and Winona Ryder from the study.)

19 Comments for “Your stuff isn’t you”

  1. posted by Tracie Yule on

    This is a wonderful reminder to all of us! No one is going to remember the things we had in our home, but people will remember how we treated them and what kind of people we are. If you keep this in mind, it is much easier to become less attached to the “stuff.”

  2. posted by Caroline on

    It is hard to move on from “things” that define us.

    Take for instance my car. I drive a Mustang. This Mustang was sold to me by the man that is now my husband. We met when he sold me the car. The car was in our wedding, and for the last year, has been my mom-mobile, my infant son being piloted in sports car style.

    I love my car, and it reminds me of our story every time I look out the window and see it. *cue sappy music*

    We are looking at replacing this car with a more family friendly beast, and the thought of trading it in terrifies me. Can we not keep it as a second car? I want to keep it and give it to our son some day, keep it in good shape, perhaps trick it out a bit….

    I’m holding onto it, and feeling this tug of war between being practical (costs too much to insure two vehicles, we could use the trade-in to lower payments on a new vehicle etc) and sentimental. Despite knowing that stuff does not define us, this part of our history, wrapped up in a 4.0L engine and blue paint is hard to put in that category.

    Your post is important to remember, no matter what the “stuff” is. Clothing, car, house, collection of figurines/plates/spoons/Star Wars figures etc are all just things. You, as opposed to your things, live and breathe. You, as opposed to your things, is what is important to others.

  3. posted by Jonda Beattie on

    Even we stop looking at what we have in our home that is supposed to define us. I remember that a friend of my mother would sometimes stop in when she was not at home (back in the place and time when doors were not always locked) and move something or hang a picture upside down to see if she notice he had been there. Once he exchanged the position of two chairs and it was not until my mother actually sat in one of the chairs, did she notice the change.

  4. posted by kat on

    Interesting! I once shaved off my eyebrows and was surprised at how few people noticed… I would run into people and they would STARE at me, trying to figure it out. “You look… different. Did you cut your hair?” Apparently eyebrows are just part of our subconscious processing of someone’s face.

  5. posted by WilliamB on

    “Who comes up with the idea for testing this sort of thing?”

    The companies that create facial recognition and surveillance software; the government & private organizations that use it; the non-profits that object to surveillance; psychologists studying human mental processing.

    And the occasional really rich private scientist, but such are rare these days.

  6. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    Very interesting! I wrote about “Hoarders” on A&E last week, and I was struck by how strongly the people profiled on the show identify themselves with their stuff. I honestly think some of them would rather part with their eyebrows than even a few of their belongings.

    Personally, I wouldn’t shave my eyebrows off. They’d probably grow back twice as thick, and then I’d look like Cousin Itt with a monk’s tonsure.

  7. posted by momofthree on

    I think it’s the last line from above says it best: “your stuff isn’t you”.
    What makes me, me? A sense of humor, a sense of duty and loyalty to friends and family, being mom to 3 teens, and belonging to a couple of organizations.
    Don’t need a lot of “STUFF” to do any of the above.

    And thanks for the “who” does find this stuff worthy of “working on”.

  8. posted by Brandon Green on

    Good to know–I have a lot of real estate clients who hate all of their stuff.

  9. posted by Anita on

    Ah, once again I get to use my two favourite words: it depends! Are we talking about “stuff” that we feel defines us, or “stuff” that other people see as defining us?

    Example: I wear glasses with thick black frames. I’ve only worn glasses for a couple of years, I’ve only had these particular ones for less than a year, and I only wear them at work. In my mind, and to most people I know, they don’t define me or my appearance in any way; but people I work with who have only ever seen me with them on have trouble recognizing me when I’m not wearing them, and vice versa. Just today, I walked into a meeting with several people I had met before getting my new glasses, and they all introduced themselves to me as though they’d never seen me before in their lives. Only once I introduced myself did they seem to remember having met me.

    So. Do my glasses define me? By the standards of this study, and in my work environment, one would be tempted to say yes. So then, isn’t every eyeglass-wearer essentially defined by their “stuff” to some extent?

    The point I’m trying to make is this: the choices we make in how we present ourselves to the world do define us in people’s eyes. The way you shape of your eyebrows is as much of a choice as a particular style of dress, or a pair of glasses, or your personal values. “Stuff” is expendable, true. But it doesn’t mean it’s devoid of meaning, and it certainly doesn’t mean it has no role in defining us to the outside world…

  10. posted by Marie on

    So, what does the study say about Whoopi Goldberg? :p

  11. posted by Mary on

    Nice post.

    Kat, why did you shave your eyebrows? Just curious.

  12. posted by knitwych on

    @Caroline, I feel your pain! My beloved 1993 pickup, Ruby, which has hauled me (and most of my stuff, plus the stuff of several friends & family members all over the state) has developed head gasket issues — this after we’ve sunk about $1K into it already this year. I am wrestling with the logical argument (sell) and the emotional argument (first new vehicle I ever bought, my love of trucks, etc.). I’m lucky enough that a friend is letting me take over payments on a vehicle his soon-to-be-ex dumped on him, and it’s a nice one – 2007 Taurus. But it’s not my Ruby. It’s a…car. Just a car. No personality at all, and one hell of a change after almost 20 years of driving pickup trucks. I survived quite nicely for 16 years w/o auto locks, auto windows (which make me feel claustrophobic), cruise control, mirrors, etc. All this stuff seems like clutter to me! Right now, my favorite feature of the vehicle is the stereo system. Even though it kicks butt, I found that after a week of driving this car, I hardly ever turned it on.

    While I know that I MUST have reliable transportation, I genuinely miss driving my truck. I’m still on the fence about how much of that is emotional attachment and how much of it is resistance based on the things about this car that genuinely do not work well for me and my lifestyle.

  13. posted by Terry on

    It’s funny that you should mention this topic and cars come up.
    I drive a 79 Toyota pick-up that I paint with a paint brush every couple of years and have actually been refered to as the guy that drives the old junker truck, but I also have a 2008 Tundra that I drive rarely and no one ever even comments on that truck. So to some extent people do recognize you by your stuff. My opinion.

  14. posted by trillie on

    First of all: I really, really enjoyed the posts here during the last month! :o)

    While still wondering about wheter what we own or wear defines us in the eyes of others (eyebrows? expensive cologne? glasses? cars?), I immediately thought that friends judge us by our personality and skills. Strangers or people we only see occasionally (like co-workers) use other things to build their mental image of us. What about the fact that supposedly 80% of first impression is based on looks? What about commercials telling us we’re only successful if we drive this car and wear that brand name? What about people pigeonholing other people using a feature that stands out, like an eccentric car or knee-high white leather boots?

    An anecdote on “your stuff isn’t you” — something I heard in a university course in the linguistics department about sign language: If I remember correctly, people in the deaf community are not regularly called by their names, but by nicknames that describe them or the most obvious (visual) thing about them. For example, if someone always wears a red hat, his nickname is “red hat” in sign language. Even if he throws the hat away, his name will always be “red hat”. If someone is overweight, their nickname might be “heavy”, even if he or she loses the weight (and the nickname is not meant to be mean or discriminatory, it’s just a matter-of-fact description, easy for everyone to see).

  15. posted by Amy on

    This has some interesting implications for people undergoing medical treatments that cause them to lose their eyebrows (think: chemotherapy). How does this effect identity and recognition? What about when one looks in the mirror? Something to ponder, I suppose.

  16. posted by Beverly D on

    @Amy, as a Hospice ARNP, I can tell you that one of the things cancer patients deal with is the assault to their body image due to loss of body hair. People with thyroid disease also lose their eyebrows, although more slowly. Thank goodness for brow pencils, but they still look fake. It’s terrible to look in the mirror and have a stranger look back. And see people and have them not recognize you at first.

  17. posted by Linkworthy – 10/4/09 | MattCleaver.com on

    […] When I first saw this, I thought it would make a great illustration. How important are your eyebrows? […]

  18. posted by thesimplerlife.net » Blog Archive » simple saturday links 10/24/2009 on

    […] unclutterer: your stuff isn’t you– A study was done that showed people have an incredibly hard time recognizing faces that have had the eyebrows removed.  People buy “stuff” to express themselves.  Are your doodads and knick-knacks you?  If you threw away your crazy pen collection would people still know who you are? I think so.  Shave off that little bit of hair that hangs out above your eyes and then you will realize what it is like for people to not know who you are. […]

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